BY LENNY MEGLIOLA
If you were a Red Sox fan, there were pitchers you just had to see when they were in their glory years. Luis Tiant in the 1970s, Roger Clemens in the ’80s, and Pedro Martinez in the late ’90s, and into the new millennium.
The twisting, gyrating Tiant long ago departed, but he remains a smiling, cigar-puffing presence on the Boston scene. Clemens is gone, too, his greatness undeniably powerful, yet so much of it diluted by the steroids cloud. In their day, Tiant and Clemens locked up the Fenway fans’ rapt attention every time, pitch by pitch. Martinez, possibly, even more so.
If you had bought Red Sox tickets over the winter, you prayed Pedro would be pitching that day. The guy was mesmerizing. Many times he just seemed to be teasing batters, such as during the 2000 season, when he won 18 games with a 1.74 ERA. Martinez stared down batters after punching them out. He was the best thing going, and he knew it. Fans ate it up.
The roar of the crowd has long since subsided for Tiant and Clemens, and it may be a thing of the past for Pedro, too. When the New York Mets signed Oliver Perez to a three-year deal worth $36 million last month, the starting rotation for 2009 looked set: Johan Santana, John Maine, Perez, and Mike Pelfrey, with Freddy Garcia, Jonathon Niese, and Tim Redding vying for the fifth slot. What, no room for Pedro?
The Mets have not re-signed Martinez. It’s still up in the air if they, or some other team, will take a flyer on a guy who is 214-99 lifetime. But he’s also 38, with diminishing health and stats in recent years.
A free agent after the 2004 Red Sox championship season, Pedro was looking for a four-year deal with Boston. Young general manager Theo Epstein’s crystal ball saw a Martinez who wouldn’t hold up that long. The strain on Martinez’s arm and shoulder would be too much for the 170-pound gunslinger.
That’s even what the Dodgers, who originally signed him, felt from the start. They thought Martinez’s physical makeup, slender, wiry, wasn’t built for the long haul. They had him pegged for the bullpen. It didn’t matter to the Dodgers that Martinez, a 21-year-old rookie in 1993, went 10-5 with a 2.61 ERA. They traded him to the Montreal Expos for Delino DeShields. How’d that work out?
To those who thought Martinez was too fragile to turn in a long major league career, the pitcher got the last laugh. Damn straight. He could shake his fists at them (especially the Dodgers) and shove his three Cy Young Awards in their faces. But past is past. The flaming-out of the great Pedro Martinez is upon us. Last season with the Mets, a worn-down Martinez made just 20 starts and was a shell of himself (5-6, 5.61 ERA). He was coming off an injury-racked 2007 season in which he pitched just 28 innings. In 2006 he was mediocre (9-8, 4.48).
Only in his first year with the Mets, in ’05, was he recognizable as the Pedro Martinez (15-8, 2.82). Epstein had guessed right after the wildly euphoric 2004 championship season, when Pedro became a free agent and was looking for something more than two years, preferably four. Even then, there were signs of wear on Martinez. What the Dodgers thought about Pedro in the early ’90s, Epstein could be more definitive about in November 2004.
Four more years of Pedro, for big dough? No way. Not in Boston. The Mets looked at it differently. In hindsight, it was a mistake. They overpaid and overextended for Pedro. Now he’s peddling his services again.
A whole new stage
It was in baseball-mad Boston that a large and appreciative audience glimpsed Martinez’s brilliance for the first time. Montreal was no baseball town. The Expos played in front of crowds that could fit in a flea’s navel. Martinez shined in anonymity. But the baseball world in the States was paying attention.
In 1997, Martinez threw a career-high 241 innings and finished 17-8 with a 1.90 ERA. It was clear that the best was still ahead for the self-confident hard-thrower. It was also clear that the Expos wouldn’t be able to pay him what he was worth. The Red Sox could. That November, the Sox gave up pitching prospects Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. to get Martinez. He signed a six-year deal worth $75 million.
Every Pedro start at Fenway was an event. The mound was more of a stage. The spotlight always found him. He had a bullfighter’s stare, a dancer’s (flamenco?) flair. There are people who will say Pedro’s the best they ever saw. And if we’ve seen the last of him, how lucky we were, huh?
In Game 2 of the 2004 ALCS at Yankee Stadium, the fans taunted Pedro with the now-famous “who’s your daddy?” whoop. He pitched well but gave up a two-run homer to John Olerud in the sixth inning and lost, 3-1. After the game, Pedro was asked about the fans’ jeers. Did it bother him? Did it not? He proceeded to put the entire night in a context that was far-reaching, somewhat a reflection of his life, really.
Said Martinez, “I realized I was somebody important because I caught the attention of 60,000 people, and the whole world watching, a guy that if you reverse time back 15 years I was sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to pay for a bus.”
Money is not a problem for Pedro Martinez. But the mango tree beckons.
Veteran sports columnist Lenny Megliola is an OT contributor and can be reached at email@example.com
This week's OT cover
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